Chelsea Abdullah’s The Stardust Thief takes place, as the book’s first words tell us, neither here nor there but long ago. In this long ago time, there are jinn in the world—magical beings whose silver blood brings forth life where it lands. For reasons we do not know (at first), the Sultan of Madinne has ordered all jinn to be killed on sight. There is even a cabal of Forty Thieves tasked with hunting them down, resulting in lush oases where they are massacred. It is beautiful and horrible, as one character describes it, and it is both the backdrop and the driving force of the story that unfolds.
That story starts with a mandated expedition. Relics—magical artifacts associated with jinn—are coveted items, and a young woman named Loulie al-Nazari (a.k.a. the Midnight Merchant) specializes in selling these relics on the black market. Loulie gets caught by the Sultan, however, and is forced to go find a specific relic—a powerful jinn trapped in a lamp—that will give its master great power. And so Loulie and her bodyguard Qadir, along with the Sultan’s son Mazen and a renowned jinn-killer named Aisha, head out to find the coveted item, whether they want to or not.
Like many fantasy tales about a long journey, there are twists and turns in The Stardust Thief. And while not all of them are surprises, they are still utterly enjoyable. Mazen’s brother Omar, who is head of the nefarious Forty Thieves, for example, clearly has a plan of his own in the works that from the start don’t bode well for the group.
The trials the group go through are many, not surprising given Abdullah lists the stories from One Thousand and One Nights as an inspiration for tale. And like many strong fantasy stories, the adventures the group goes on are the meat of the tale rather than finally finding the mythical relic at the end (though that lamp certainly has its own story as well). There are also brief fables interspersed with the point-of-view chapters that add to the richness of the story—Abdullah has created a fully realized world here, and one that also touches on the horrors of genocide and how xenophobia can corrupt a land. Despite those dark themes, the world Abdullah has created is vibrant, and one can’t help but want to explore it further.
What makes The Stardust Thief stand out, however, are the characters, specifically Loulie, Mazen, and Aisha, who each have chapters told from their points of view. Unlike some epic fantasy tales, Abdullah has taken the time to fully develop each of them, sharing with us their personal trials, foibles, and flaws as well as their dreams and outlook on life. Each of them also change and grow from the beginning of the story to the book’s end, and you can’t wait to spend more time with them.
The good news is you will be able to spend more time of them—The Stardust Thief is the first in a trilogy, and while there is certainly more story to tell, the first book answers enough mysteries to be satisfying in its own right (though, again, there are plenty of other mysteries and parts of this world yet to be revealed and visited).
The book is well worth the read for epic fantasy fans who care just as much about character development as about rich worldbuilding. It’s a wonderful world to get lost in, with characters you’ll come to care about making their way in a complex, richly wrought world.
The Stardust Thief is available from Orbit.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.